Rainey Bethea: The photographic story of America’s last public execution, 1936
Rainey Bethea (born in 1909) was the last person to be publicly executed in the United States. An African-American male, who was about 26 years old, he confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old white woman named Lischia Edwards, and was publicly hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky after being convicted of her rape.
Mistakes in performing the hanging, and the surrounding media circus, contributed to the end of public executions in the United States.
During the early morning of June 7, 1936, Bethea entered the home of Lischia Edwards on East Fifth Street by climbing onto the roof of an outbuilding next door.
After removing a screen from her window, he entered the room, waking her. Bethea then choked Edwards and violently raped her.
After she was unconscious, he searched for valuables and stole several of her rings. In the process, he removed his own black celluloid prison ring, and failed to later retrieve it.
He left the bedroom and hid the stolen jewels in a barn not far from the house. The crime was discovered late that morning after the Smith family, who lived downstairs, noticed they had not heard Edwards stirring in her room.
Police officers found muddy footprints everywhere, including Bethea’s celluloid prison ring. By late Sunday afternoon, the police already suspected Rainey Bethea after several residents of Owensboro stated that they had previously seen Bethea wearing the ring.
Since Bethea had a criminal record, the police could use the then-new identification technique of fingerprints to establish that Bethea had recently touched items inside the bedroom. Police searched for Bethea over the next four days until he was eventually located and arrested.
Judge Forrest A. Roby of the Daviess Circuit Court ordered the sheriff to transport Bethea to the Jefferson County Jail in Louisville.
While being transferred, Bethea made his first confession, admitting that he had raped Edwards and strangled her to death. Bethea also lamented the fact that he had made a mistake by leaving his ring at the crime scene, stating that he had removed the ring in order to try on Edwards’s rings.
On June 12, 1936, Bethea confessed a second time, telling the guards where he had hidden the stolen jewelry. Owensboro police searched a barn in Owensboro and found the jewelry where Bethea said he had left it.
Under Kentucky law, the grand jury could not convene until June 22, and the prosecutor charged Bethea solely with rape. Under extant state statutes, executions for murder and robbery were carried out by electrocution at the state penitentiary in Eddyville.
Rape, however, could be punished by public hanging in the county seat where the crime occurred. Bethea was never charged with the remaining crimes of theft, robbery, burglary, giving a false name to police, or murder. After one hour and forty minutes, the grand jury returned an indictment, charging Bethea with rape.
On June 25, 1936, officers returned Bethea to Owensboro for the trial, which took place that same day. Bethea asserted a Clyde Maddox would provide an alibi, but Maddox claimed he did not know Bethea.
The defense subpoenaed four witnesses: Maddox, Ladd Moorman, Willie Johnson (a supposed accomplice given Bethea’s statements), and Allen McDaniel. The first three were served; however, the sheriff’s office could not find a person named Allen McDaniel.
On the night before the trial, Bethea announced to his lawyers that he wanted to plead guilty, doing so the next day at the start of the trial.
The prosecutor still presented the state’s case to the jury in spite of the guilty plea, requesting the death penalty for Bethea.
In his opening statement, Commonwealth’s Attorney Herman Birkhead said, “This is one of the most dastardly, beastly, cowardly crimes ever committed in Daviess County. Justice demands and the Commonwealth will ask and expect a verdict of the death penalty by hanging.”
After questioning 21 witnesses, the prosecution closed its case. The defense did not present or examine any witnesses.
After a closing statement by the prosecutor, the judge instructed the jury that since Bethea had pleaded guilty, they must “…fix his punishment, at confinement in the penitentiary for not less than ten years nor more than twenty years, or at death.”
After only four and a half minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a sentence of death by hanging. Bethea was then quickly removed from the courthouse and returned to the Jefferson County Jail. In all, Bethea’s trial lasted for three hours.
While the crime was infamous locally, it came to nationwide attention because the sheriff of Daviess County was a woman. Florence Shoemaker Thompson had become sheriff on April 13, 1936, after her husband, sheriff Everett Thompson, unexpectedly died of pneumonia on April 10.
Florence became sheriff through widow’s succession, and as sheriff of the county, she was tasked with hanging Bethea.
Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer, offered his services free of charge to perform the execution. Thompson accepted this offer. He asked that she not make his name public.
Hash arrived at the site intoxicated wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat. At this time, no one but he and Thompson knew that he would pull the trigger.
On August 6, the Governor of Kentucky, Albert Chandler, signed Bethea’s execution warrant and set the execution for sunrise on August 14.
Thompson requested the governor to issue a revised death warrant because the original warrant specified that the hanging would take place in the courthouse yard where the county had recently planted, at significant cost, new shrubs and flowers.
Chandler was out-of-state, so Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky Keen Johnson, as acting governor, signed a second death warrant moving the location of the hanging from the courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage.
Rainey Bethea’s last meal consisted of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream, which he ate at 4:00 p.m. on August 13 in Louisville.
At about 1:00 a.m., Daviess County deputy sheriffs transported Bethea from Louisville to Owensboro. At the Daviess County Jail, professional hangman Phil Hanna of Epworth, Illinois, visited Bethea and instructed him to stand on the X that would be marked on the trapdoor.
Bethea left the Daviess County Jail at 5:21 a.m. and walked with two deputies to the scaffold. Within two minutes, he was at the base of the scaffold.
Removing his shoes, he put on a new pair of socks. He ascended the steps and stood on the large X as instructed.
After Bethea made his final confession to Father Lammers of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, who had also supervised Bethea’s conversion to Roman Catholicism during Bethea’s incarceration at the Jefferson County Jail two weeks prior to the execution, officers placed a black hood over his head and fastened three large straps around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest.
Hanna placed the noose around Bethea’s neck, adjusted it, and then signaled to Hash to pull the trigger. Instead, Hash, who was drunk, did nothing.
Hanna shouted at Hash, “Do it!” A deputy then leaned onto the trigger, which sprang the trap door. Bethea fell 8 feet (2.4 m), and his neck was instantly broken.
Afterward, two doctors confirmed he was dead. His body was taken to Andrew & Wheatley Funeral Home.
He wanted his body to be sent to his sister in South Carolina so that she could arrange for him to be interred next to his father, but against these wishes, he was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro.
It was estimated that a crowd of about 20,000 people gathered to watch the execution. Afterwards, Hanna complained that Hash should not have been allowed to perform the execution in his drunken condition. Hanna further said it was the worst display he experienced in the 70 hangings he had supervised.
The embarrassment and media circus surrounding Bethea’s execution sped up its abolishment in legislation. In response, William Attkisson of the Kentucky State Senate’s 38th District introduced a bill repealing the requirement that executions for convicted rapists be done publicly.
After quick debates, his proposal was signed into law, and thereafter public executions permanently fell out of favor.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Wikipedia / Britannica / Library of Congress / Daily Mail Archives / AP / Getty / Pinterest).